A woman holds up a sign bearing a photograph of Morgan Goodridge during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver on Saturday, August 15, 2020. The B.C. Coroners Service reported a record number of 175 overdose deaths related to illicit drugs in June. Approximately 5,000 people have died due to illicit-drug overdoses since a public health emergency was declared in 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A woman holds up a sign bearing a photograph of Morgan Goodridge during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver on Saturday, August 15, 2020. The B.C. Coroners Service reported a record number of 175 overdose deaths related to illicit drugs in June. Approximately 5,000 people have died due to illicit-drug overdoses since a public health emergency was declared in 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Former health officials, advocates reflect on anniversary of B.C.’s overdose emergency

The year of the pandemic saw record-high overdose deaths

When British Columbia’s provincial health officer declared an emergency over the overdose crisis five years ago, he said it was because those who died deserved more of a response.

Since then, more than 7,000 have died in “unnecessary” deaths, said Dr. Perry Kendall.

“If you look at the map of B.C., people are dying in every town and village in this province,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “They’re not all people who are homeless … we have people who are employed, or unemployed, who have families and children. They are us,” said Kendall, who was B.C.’s public health officer from 1999 to 2018.

Annual deaths hit an initial peak of 1,550 in 2018 before dropping in 2019 and then surging to record numbers during the COVID-19 health emergency to 1,724 in last year.

B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe blamed deadlier street drugs for part of the rise. Almost one in five deaths in January involved extreme levels of fentanyl concentration. She also said COVID-19 was isolating people and they were dying alone.

Safe supply and drug treatment for those who want it should be the main focus now, Kendall said.

He credited both the former Liberal and current NDP provincial governments for moving addiction issues forward, but said the spike in toxic drug deaths has become overshadowed by COVID-19.

“We aren’t treating the overdose crisis with the attention we ought to be giving it,” he said.

Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions, wasn’t available for comment but told a Surrey Board of Trade event Tuesday that COVID-19 has been hard on people who use drugs.

“The stigma that drives people to use alone and a pandemic that isolates them even further, and you have a terrible recipe for a surge in overdose deaths,” she said.

Malcolmson said her government is committed to decriminalization efforts, but that has been limited by a lack of response from the federal government.

The City of Vancouver recently submitted an application to Health Canada outlining that people should be allowed to carry a three-day supply of various drugs as it seeks to get a federal exemption to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs.

The B.C. government has made several commitments to helping drug users, with supervised consumption sites scattered across the province in addition to volunteer-run overdose prevention sites in many cities.

B.C. announced a safe supply of pharmaceutical alternatives in 2020, with doctors and nurse practitioners given the ability to prescribe to those who use drugs.

But the provincial government could be doing more to help, said a woman who lost her son to an overdose and co-founded an advocacy group because of his death.

Leslie McBain, of Moms Stop the Harm, said she’s “beyond frustrated” that actions such as safe supply have yet to be pushed through to help drug users.

“Here we are, five years later with more deaths, no real, fulsome, safe supply of drugs for people who need them and still, the government seems to be doing research and writing up plans we never see,” she said. “I’m disappointed.”

READ MORE: B.C. overdose deaths still rising five years after public health emergency declared

Corey Ranger, a registered nurse with Victoria’s Safer initiative, said he’s attended 48 overdoses in the past year, much more than in the previous years.

“It’s been completely overwhelming,” he said. “We’re at the fifth-year anniversary and this is our first and most readily ignored crisis.”

Safer provides pharmaceutical drugs to people at risk of dying from a toxic drug supply.

The volatility of the street drugs makes it harder to resuscitate people when they overdose, Ranger added.

He said the provincial government needs to make decriminalization a priority.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press


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